Exactly a year ago I wrote about the annual High Polymer Research Group Conference, held at the edge of the Peak District. Over the years I have watched it transform from an inward-looking cliquey organisation, where I initially sat right at the edge – a rare physicist amongst the chemists, an even rarer woman amongst the blokes – to a welcoming, inclusive and interdisciplinary meeting with an average age at least 20 years less than when I started out (unfortunately the same cannot be said of my own age!). Now being one of the older attendees, I hope I do my bit (in accord with the wise words written recently about good behaviour at conferences by Rosie Redfield) to ensure each year’s newcomers don’t feel left out, and those scientists at an earlier stage of their careers can use late night chats in the bar to pick my brains if they feel so inclined and reckon they’re worth picking. I’ve even been using this meeting to discuss Athena Swan awards.
Having previously served on the organisation committee, I know that the organisers are very mindful of the gender composition of both speakers and audience (it is an invitation only conference). This year around 25% of the speakers were women. Not bad, given the community from which the participants can be drawn. The percentage of women in the audience is probably a tiny bit higher, but not much, but is increasing year on year due to determination of the committee to seek out the less familiar female potential attendees. But this year, having read the plea Dorothy Bishop put out on her blog for women to speak up at conferences, I have been looking at the dynamics with different eyes. She felt that too often at conference talks and seminars, women were reluctant to open their mouths, unwilling to utter in case they made a fool of themselves, preferring to wait till everyone else had left to have a private word with the speaker. She says
There’s no point in encouraging men to listen to women’s voices if the women never speak up. If you are one of those silent women, I urge you to make an effort to overcome your bashfulness. You’ll find it less terrifying than you imagine, and it gets easier with practice. Don’t ask questions just for the sake of it, but when a speaker sparks off an interesting thought, a challenging question, or just a need for clarification, speak out. We need to change the culture here so that the next generation of women feel at ease in engaging in verbal academic debate.
Now in principle I agree with Dorothy, but I find in this case that I have a lot of sympathy with those bashful women who prefer not to quiz the speaker publicly. Not that I am usually regarded as silent – in committees or other kinds of meetings – but I do tend to be ‘bashful’ when it comes to the conference/seminar scene; it is one of the few situations where – still – I can feel the flight or fight reaction setting in. So, I have a lot of sympathy for other individuals – female or male – who feel the same way. It doesn’t always stop me chipping in, but I probably do it less than might be expected.
I’m sure most people will be familiar with those smart and confident people who preface their questions with ‘I’m afraid I’m being very stupid but…’ and then jump right into the heart of the matter with some percipient and pertinent question. Most seminar speakers should quail when the question begins that way, although just occasionally the person is indeed being very stupid. However, the people who I recall doing this with style and dangerous disingenuousness are two previous heads of my own department. One of them used to compound their apparent innocence by seemingly being asleep through much of the seminar.
Then there is another class of frequent questioners who are determined that their voice should be heard, come what may. You can count on them to jump in, whether their question is deep or merely about trivial methodological detail along the lines of ‘can you explain what size vial you used’ sort of thing. They are the show-offs, the people trying to prove they’re smart by being vocal. If no one else has any questions this can save the organiser the embarrassment of a totally silent audience, but otherwise this person is little more than an exhibitionist nuisance. Of course there are the genuinely thoughtful who also have lots of questions to ask. Keenly interested in everything, they really do want to know more, and more and more and so keep asking questions. In general they are likely to spark off lively debate. But how many women would I feel I could name who fitted into any of these categories. Very few. So Dorothy clearly has a point.
Why do I myself prefer to keep quiet? Sometimes it is because I assume that I am being thick, or that maybe I dropped off at the vital moment when the bit I fail to get was being beautifully explained or that everyone else had learned it at GCSE and I had somehow failed to pick it up. I think these are the sort of ‘excuses’ with which Dorothy would have no truck. Maybe these are the excuses of the coward, who is simply trying to hide, but they can feel very real. At other times I feel, although my question is reasonable perhaps it is just about detail that the rest of the audience won’t care to know, and so can safely be left aside (unless no one else is asking questions at all, in which case it is useful to have up one’s sleeve to save that awkward empty space when the organiser looks round the audience in increasing desperation to see if anyone had paid any attention at all). But when I feel on top of the subject but puzzled, or when I want to tie the work in with something else or someone else’s data then, yes, I’ll pipe up. I can even recall once, at this very same conference I’m currently attending but some years ago, the person sitting next to me saying ‘don’t be too harsh with your question’ when the speaker really didn’t know their stuff and was rather obviously making a hash of a topic close to my own heart. I hope I managed to phrase my question then sufficiently tactfully that the debate was opened up without too much of my incredulity about the work being brutally set out.
So ladies, indeed people, speak up when the situation warrants it and shut up when it doesn’t. And if asking public questions really isn’t your forte, as long as you speak up elsewhere, don’t berate yourself too harshly. If, on the other hand, you have never found your voice in any situation, then you have a problem that you need to address – and fast.
Aside During the conference I put out a tweet remarking that the evening session one day had been particularly good and ‘all the better for having 2 women speakers and a female chair’, for which I was taken to task. I stand by what I said. This was not to denigrate any of the male speakers, or to imply individually the women were better. But having a session – presumably by chance – at which all the participants were women should just serve to remind people that it is both possible to find excellent women to showcase and that when you do the conference continues to thrive. For the younger women in the audience such visible role models too can only be beneficial. Clearly issues around any sort of ‘positive discromination’ are complex, and I have written about this before here and here. But a visual (and audible) reminder to the community, that too easily can think male is the norm, has its advantages. If there was a conference where females were in the significant majority, I would stick up for a session showcasing men in just the same way!